The Braves were in the middle of their teardown in the 2014-2015 offseason when they decided to deal one of their most valuable players: Justin Upton. Upton had one year remaining until free agency, and after trading Jason Heyward, they decided to go all the way and deal off Upton as well. This would pave the way for the eventual trades of Melvin Upton Jr., Craig Kimbrel, and Evan Gattis.
But the Justin deal would be the trade with the biggest prospect haul, as they weren’t looking to shed payroll (Kimbrel/M. Upton), nor were they looking to get back an established player (like Shelby Miller), or even a stopgap (Cameron Maybin). They were rebuilding, they wanted prospects, and that’s exactly what they got. They traded Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith.
What we gave up:
Justin Upton: Upton had a power outage in his last year in Arizona (only 24 doubles, 17 home runs, and a .430 slugging percentage in a full season’s duty). His power rebounded in Atlanta where he hit 27 and 29 home runs in his two seasons, with a combined SLG of .478. Fine as he was, however, his overall production never quite reached the All-Star level many expected of him. His OPS never returned to its highest levels in Arizona, he stopped stealing bases, and his defense was still below-average-to-average.
He was still a valuable piece because of his contract, as he would only make $14.5M in his one season in San Diego, while generating 3.5 fWAR. Again, a very good player, but not quite a cornerstone. (He did make the All-Star team, but as a charity case: he was the only Padre chosen.)
He didn’t have the ideal “walk year” in San Diego, as he would have his second-worst OPS of his career in the cavernous park. Nonetheless, Detroit signed him to a 6-year contract at a $22M AAV. (In 2016, he had a lower OPS than he’d had in 2015, and Detroit may be ruing their generosity.) Atlanta would never have the resources nor the desire to sign him to that level of a deal.
Aaron Northcraft: Northcraft was a filler piece in the deal. A former 10th-round pick, he had a couple decent seasons in high-A and double-A, but he is now 26 and has yet to reach the big leagues. It doesn’t appear he ever will.
What we received:
Mallex Smith: Mallex is a burner. In the season before being traded for Atlanta, Smith hustled to 88 SBs, but also provided a .834 OPS and positively graded centerfield defense in A- and A+. Mallex spent 2015 in AA and AAA, and made his way to Atlanta in 2016. The jury is still out on him: it appears he can hit, run, and play defense, but how much of each remains to be seen. At worst, he’s a 4th OF at the major league level, but if he hits better than he did in 2016 and takes better routes to balls, he could be an above-average centerfielder as soon as next year. With Ender Inciarte anchored in center, his future in Atlanta is undetermined.
Jace Peterson: Peterson was the first player to reach Atlanta. He was mostly the age of his peers at his minor league stops, and he produced around an .800 OPS at most of his stops in the minor leagues. He graded out as average in most prospect reports as he progressed through San Diego’s system. His first big league season was one to forget as he was Atlanta’s primary second baseman and produced a .239/.314/.335 line in almost 600 PAs. (It was a tale of two seasons for him: in the first half, he put up a decent .255/.334/.358, but in the second half, he hit .220/.290/.311. That won’t cut it.)
When he began the 2016 season in a horrible funk (.182/.260/.205), he was sent to AAA. Upon returning, he showed some promise, hitting .265/.362/.389 while spending time at 2B, 3B, LF, and CF. He had some stretches where he was an above-average major leaguer, and based on what we saw in the second half of 2016, it’s possible that Jace could have a solid career as a super-utility player. But if his offense falls below his second half performance, he will struggle to remain on a major league roster. Still, he’s someone that will be penciled into the 2017 roster unless he’s traded.
Dustin Peterson: This particular Peterson — no relation to Jace, he’s the brother of Mariners prospect D.J. Peterson — was a third baseman when he was traded for, but the Braves moved him to left field before he ever played an inning for them. His 2015 was a forgettable season, but that can be said for many players who were involved in the Carolina Mudcats bus crash. Peterson turned a huge corner in 2016 at AA, where as a 21-year old, he improved his walk rate, power, and batting average while putting up on the best seasons of the Braves’ minor league hitters. He finished with a .282/.343/.431 line with a whopping 38 doubles to add to his 12 home runs. Since he was three years younger than his contemporaries, it’s easy to say that he’ll continue to mature and could see some time in Atlanta in 2017.
Max Fried: Max also took a huge step forward in 2016. Considered a “buy low” candidate because of his recent Tommy John surgery, Fried missed all of 2015 as his elbow recovered. He understandably started the season slow in single-A Rome as he had an ERA near 6 after 7 starts. However, he significantly improved his stock with a 2.74 ERA in 15 starts to close the year. During that period, the lefty had 108 strike outs in 85.2 innings, and he’ll likely move quickly through the Braves’ system going forward. It’s debatable whether Dustin Peterson or Fried have improved their value more since being acquired, but I’d give the edge to Fried considering he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter while throwing from the left side.
There aren’t always winners and losers in trades, but it’s clear Atlanta got more value back in this trade. Though Upton had a very good single season in San Diego, it wasn’t enough to prevent an 88-loss season, and the once again rebuilding Padres will regret giving up so much talent. But credit the Braves scouting and player development departments: each of the four players have taken strides forward since the trade. Mallex and Jace are already in Atlanta, Fried is demonstrating major league talent, and Dustin Peterson could be a starting left fielder at some point in the near future.